Alice: Madness Returns is the sequel to American McGee’s Alice, video games which take a darker look at the popular children’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, two books that both so popular, yet so widely unknown that most people don’t know that they are actually two books.
Madness Returns features nineteen-year-old mental patient and orphan Alice Liddell who has lost her entire family in a fire and escapes to Wonderland, an internal world that Alice acknowledges and accepts as her own mind and madness.
One thing that Madness Returns does remarkably well is create an empowered female protagonist who is a feminist role model throughout. Many stories have a difficult time making the tale about the woman. Alice, however does exceptionally well with this, though.
Alice: Madness Returns is a surprisingly empowering story despite being in a world that is damaging and difficult for a woman to live in, especially one deemed insane. Despite taking place in this time, and in a story that is not afraid to talk about prostitution, asylums, child murder, and rape, our heroine represents a strong woman embodying the various aspects of feminism that we would like to see in a woman.
There are many games that feature rape scenes or near-rape scenes where a woman struggles to get out of the situation. Madness Returns makes reference to the rape of Alice’s older sister, in fact, but never shows this. However, there is a scene in Madness Returns where Alice is fished out of a river by two sailors who want to take her over to the brothel as a “reward.” When Alice awakens moments later, she demands to know what they think they’re doing to which one replies “what comes natural, like.” In most games, this would be a moment where the player would have to fight their way out or the character would start screaming as the men attempted to have a go at her. However, Alice’s quick response is “not natural to me. Get away!” as she proceeds to push the sailor away from her and continue on her way.
Alice’s unconventional reaction to this is what helps define her as the strong young woman she is in this universe. Even though this part takes place in London and not Wonderland, Alice remains powerful and easily brushes off the harassment, which paints her as a sort of role model. The general fear for a woman is that men are raging sex beasts who can’t control themselves around women and that women have every right to be terrified of them. Video games, for some reason, have a tendency to drive this assumption home. Even Tomb Raider featured a near-rape (or actual rape if the player wasn’t fast enough) where Lara ends up screaming and writhing to free herself. Lara Croft is supposed to be one of the strongest women in games, but even she reacts like this. What is so strong about Alice’s character is that she never allows herself to get into these situations, and when she does, she goes out it without fear and overcomes. Alice’s strength comes from her own courage and determination instead of her battle prowess or physical strength. This is what really makes her a feminist symbol. She is able to remain feminine while also being powerful.
Speaking of Alice’s femininity, some of her most empowering moments are her varying costumes, which change depending on where she is in Wonderland. In the very first scene where Alice finds herself back in Wonderland, she has a spectacular moment where she goes from the frail and sickly looking Victorian Orphan to the strong and beautiful Wonderland Alice. In this scene, Alice’s hair, which had been cut after being in an Asylum, suddenly grows long and neat. Her outfit resembles all other renditions of Alice’s costume, being a blue dress with an apron, but this one also features a skull on the bow and bloodstains from the previous game where she fought and defeated many enemies.
Alice’s varying dresses are a feminist statement in and of themselves in the context of other video games. We all too often find female characters that we want to be more like dressed in little more than lingerie or skimpy costumes. Even our classic heroes like Catwoman use sexuality and skin-tight suits to fight and use sexuality as a weapon. On the other side of this, we have women who are so macho that they hardly show signs of being feminine at all. It seems the only way for a girl to be empowered is to be a sexual object or a man.
What’s so great about Alice is that she manages to be extremely girly without showing a ton of skin or having unrealistic proportions. What makes Alice a feminist icon is that her dresses are both empowering and girly. She seems more beautiful and deadly than any woman we have previously seen in a protagonist’s role. And what’s even better is that you get the feeling that it is not just because of the time period forcing her to wear a dress past her knees, but the fact that this is what she wants to wear. Alice, herself, is a girl. She doesn’t try to be a man or a sexual object or an animal. She tries to be a girl, and therefore wears a dress because she wants to. Her makeup is dramatic, her hair is flawless, and her outfits are stunning because that’s what empowers her. When Alice is in Wonderland, she can look however she wants, and she chooses to dress in a way that isn’t modest or sexual, but a way that makes her feel comfortable. She always fits in with the surroundings and, in a way, claims them as her own through her choice of clothing. It is obvious from the very first transformation when Alice explodes into her Wonderland costume in a glorious and beautiful way, and that’s what is important and what sets her apart from other heroines. Alice dresses the way she wants to, and it works incredibly well in the universe that is created.